Women in Hip-Hop (Part 1): Writers
A female hip-hop enthusiast is a strange space to occupy. In some ways, it reminds me of being a female lawyer, another weird territory I inhabit. In law school, students are tested on cases that deem women “unfit” for the practice of law: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life” (Bradwell v. Illinois). Likewise, hip-hop is similarly steeped in misogyny. One of my favorite rap songs declares in its first verse: “jacked her, then I asked her, 'Who's the man?' / she said B-I-G / then I'd bust in her E-Y-E."”
A few years ago when I spoke to Halifu Osumare—Professor of Black Popular Culture and Director of African American Studies at U.C. Davis—for another piece, she told me that neither misogyny nor masculinity are inherent to hip-hop, but rather emerged since the genre’s commercialization. When hip-hop began in the Bronx during the 1970s, “females were plentiful,” she told me. Referencing Lil’ Kim’s being trained by Biggie, Professor Osumare explained, “most females who want to make it big are willing to submit themselves to a manipulating system.” In current commercial hip-hop, “males set the tone, and no one wants to be viewed as a ‘pussy,’ even females.”
I interviewed Professor Osumare in 2012, and I like to think that in just four years, things have changed considerably. (I won’t pretend that Beyoncé didn’t have something to do with it.) For this column, each month I will speak to women in the hip-hop industry. This month, I speak to writers, and I’m excited about this group. New York City’s Kathy Iandoli has covered music for over 15 years for Pitchfork, Noisey, BET.com and Cosmo. Abigail Covington is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for AV Club, Pitchfork, Oxford American and Consequence of Sound. Finally, Sowmya Krishnamurthy has covered music for Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Complex, XXL and BET, out of New York. Read my conversation with these inspirational women below.
Anna Dorn: What is everyone's favorite hip-hop album of all time? Also if you could introduce yourselves briefly, that would be good too.
Sowmya Krishnamurthy: I'd describe myself as a "terror since the public school era." My favorite album of all time is The Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die. That album changed my life. I was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which is as far from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn as you can humanly get, but something about Biggie's intricate storytelling and gritty honesty really spoke to me. I bought the CD at Record Town and listened to it in my off-brand Walkman on repeat. I pretty much knew then and there that I wanted to work in this awesome, expressive, crazy thing called hip-hop.
Kathy Iandoli: Mine would have to be Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). I remember coming home from school to watch Video Music Box, and one day the video for "Da Mystery Of Chessboxin'" came on. At first, it scared the shit out of me, watching a bunch of dudes dressed like chess pieces with their faces covered rap-vogueing to the tune of what we all came to know as that signature RZA sound. But then, watching every Wu member volley verses, with ODB wailing plus sword slashing ad-libs and Kung Fu movie samples? I was hooked. I bought that album on cassette from a record store that I would later work at, and no part of the project would disappoint. From the singles like "Method Man" and "C.R.E.A.M." to hidden gems like "Tearz" and "Clan In Da Front," Wu's collective debut was a potent one. I can still play that album (now on Apple Music...how times have changed) and know exactly where I was when I first heard every song for the first time.
Abigail Covington: Coming from the North, you can't enter Atlanta without crossing the Tom Moreland Interchange. It's a cement bottleneck, nicknamed "Spaghetti Junction" by locals, and it was memorialized by OutKast on their chart-shattering fourth album, Stankonia. Spaghetti Junction is a proper welcome to Atlanta. The twisted entrance gates to a city full of traps.
Big Boi warns, "Be careful where you roam / cause you might not make it home / In the junction, in the junction / Don't you dare ever get lost / cause you get caught up in that sauce / In the junction, junction."
Nobody epitomizes a city the way OutKast does Atlanta. Tracks like "Humble Mumble," "So Fresh, So Clean" and "Stankonia" are slow and laborious. The 808 bass seduces. Shit gets hazy. Like the Atlanta skyline on 105-degree evening in August.
I remember Atlanta as a sticky city in the summer. My tween thighs stuck to the seats of the Marta. Cotton t-shirts clung to my chest. Walking around the streets felt like swimming through syrup. I sweat so much, I stank.
AD: On Ready to Die, Biggie Smalls says: "bitches I like 'em brainless." On Enter the Wu Tang, Inspectah Deck spits: "I rip it hardcore, like porno-flick bitches." My personal favorite from Stankonia is "We Luv Deez Hoez." These are all undoubtedly great moments in hip-hop, but how do we reconcile loving and making a living writing about a genre so often linked to misogyny?
KI: This is an age-old question that women are bombarded with the moment they decide to delve into hip-hop culture to any degree. But it's like I said in an article once about hip-hop and misogyny, women can't walk down the street without being harassed, so do we just stop walking?
SK: I agree with Kathy. Why walk when you can take Uber? Kidding. But yes, misogyny is an issue in hip-hop as it is in the world at large. Hip-hop historically stems from young men speaking to other young men, so the lexicon makes a lot of sense in that context. As the culture has matured—and become more commercial—misogyny has seen a decline. Artists, at least the savvy ones, are more sensitive as their words have larger amplification.
AC: "Hip-hop historically stems from young men speaking to other young men, so the lexicon makes a lot of sense in that context." I agree with this point made by Sowmya. And the culture is maturing. But for every Chance The Rapper there's a Tyler, The Creator too. I try and be an activist by way of consumption. I will not listen to albums whose lyrics feature misogynistic overtones in every verse. I won't review them either. Misogyny is declining across our culture but only because many women have spoken out against it. To lessen something's popularity you have to point out its shortcomings. While I don't think critics should be able to control a culture's narrative, I do believe that it is their right to call something "tired," "lame" or "offensive" when it is. In doing so, we encourage artists to think beyond their genre's touchstones which in the case of hip-hop has historically included crude remarks about women.
AD: Can you provide some examples of hip-hop artists changing the chauvinistic narrative?
AC: Some hip-hop artists changing the narrative include Chance, Kendrick, Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, Kendrick, Run The Jewels ... Lupe and Common have always focused on other things.
SK: Nicki Minaj is a game-changer. She's not only the most successful female rapper but one of the top rappers in general. She's unapologetically fierce, sexy and powerful at the same time. I love it.
AD: Bless. All hail Queen Nicki.
KI: I think male rappers tend to vacillate when it comes to changing the misogynistic narrative. That's been in place since Tupac and before. Remember "Keep Ya Head Up" yet "I Get Around"? I think if a male rapper chose the direction solely in favor of women, they'd lose their fan base. In a similar vein when female rappers champion for women, after a while they get blank stares. They to have to vacillate. It's an unfortunate reality we are faced with in the music (and in real life).
AD: How (if at all) do you think hip-hop journalism (or music journalism more generally) has changed since you began in this field?
KI: I started in music journalism 15 years ago when the print world was just learning how to accept the internet after the ride Napster took everyone on. I mention that because the music journalism world was also learning how to cover artists that were born from the internet. They met their producers online (sometimes they never even met them) and their narrative is about chat rooms and "battling" over messenger yet they were selling records. I was also present for the seemingly gigantic change in rappers' tax brackets. That completely affected how we were allowed to achieve coverage. You were no longer driving in their cars with them; you were catching them on a 15-minute phoner before their flight to France. The access shifted as their fame did. Luckily, as the years went on, some of us are granted that extra level of access to achieve real interviews. However, for the few years when the blogging world was gaining more access than the journalism world just in the interest of music placements and videos, people like myself found it harder and harder to get a real story.
AC: I've only been at music journalism for five years so any attempts at monumental shifts in those times are yet to stick. Print was already dead. One thing that has gone the way of the dinosaurs is the live review. No one is going to pay you to review a concert after the fact when people can watch a stream of it in real time.
SK: When I began my career in hip-hop, it was all about building a resume. "Put your head down and do the work" was the mantra. Now, hip-hop is about being a brand. Everyone wants to be famous. I've met so many young writers that can't piece together 1000 words because they're too busy "branding themselves." It's important to promote your work of course, but doing the work never goes out of style. An actual, proven skill set lasts longer than being Snapchat famous.
AD: How do you all approach writing a piece of music journalism? What is your process?
AC: I listen to an album at least 10 times before I begin writing. I write down all of the references that it calls to mind and make note of any obvious influences. I break down the musical elements of each track and then do the same for the lyrics. From there, I take a step back and look and see if any patterns emerge. It's like staring into "Magic Eye" images. Along the way, lots of research is done on the artist's history in search of context clues. I try and make my album reviews tell a story. If I can connect my take on the album to some factoid about the artist, I'm happy.
SK: My process is to RESEARCH. It seems obvious but I can't tell you how many rappers thank me for taking the time to actually research them and their music before going to the interview. It's not cool to be unprepared and wing it.
KI: To elaborate on that "real story" part I mentioned, my process is to obviously become familiar with an interview subject, their music, and their city. I take it from there, and I don't really care about their cosigns [laughs].
AD: Do you all have a favorite piece of music journalism?
SK: I don't have one favorite piece of music journalism; it changes based on the day. One recent piece I loved is the New York Magazine profile of R. Kelly. The writer was direct and didn't mince words, and his access to such a reclusive artist is unheard of.
KI: Dream Hampton's 1994 Source story with Tupac Shakur.
AC: My favorite piece of music journalism is Amanda Petrusich's profile of Chan Marshall entitled All This Light.
By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.